When I think about teaching empathy in the elementary classroom, I like to think about tools that will help support kids in their understanding of the entire concept of empathy.    I’ve been exploring Stanford’s empathy maps and really like the idea of kids taking an empathy walk as they explore one’s story.

Imagine a suitcase filled with items. Students unpack the suitcase and use the clues to learn about the owner.  The suitcase could include items to help build a character profile: a letter from the suitcase owner to a friend, a set of postcards to be mailed, a favorite snack, an itinerary for a vacation… maybe the suitcase could even be a favorite book character’s suitcase.   In thinking about seeing a situation through another’s lens… empathy.  While we try to help support kids in understanding thoughts and feelings, we have to start with simple, concrete examples like “What does he or she see?” or “What does does he or she hear?”

“Unpacking the suitcase” is really about unpacking a person’s (or animal’s) story. There is always more there than just the suitcase. Every ding, scratch, and mark on the case means something.  Every compartment inside contains something meaningful.  Through the power of observation, students can learn to look at people through a set of lenses, but it takes practice.  Often we just watch someone, and immediately decide what the story is.  Empathy slows us down to make sure we connect before we make any assumptions.   I made a set of cards (PDF here) to put on a ring so that kids could have prompts to help them think and process.  These are version 1 and I’m sure I’ll make changes as this story unfolds.

Has technology made us too quick to judge? Or is that just us being human?  Either way, empathy is a skill our kids need. Today, tomorrow, and in the future.

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